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Exploring Malaysia's east coast.

Far enough off the beaten path to still be an adventure, Malaysia's east coast offers travelers a chance to visit traditional villages, shop for locally made crafts, and swim from miles and miles of undeveloped white sand beaches bordering the South China Sea.

While roads now edge nearly the entire tropical coastline from Singapore to Kota Bharu, near the Thai border, one of the most diverse sections is the 220 kilometers (about 138 miles) from Kuantan north to Kuala Terengganu. You can sample the area in three days, but most visitors (predominantly Europeans) make it a week's destination.

Several international-scale hotels (with international rates) and a Club Med pepper this coast, but if you can tear yourself away from air conditioning and room service, you can stretch your travel budget in basic thatch-roofed bungalows for as little as $lO per night. Simple meals typically beef, chicken, and fish stews served with rice in local restaurants cost just a few dollars per person. While not everybody speaks English, language is seldom an insurmountable problem.

You can join group tours of the coast or travel inexpensively by bus or taxi, but the best way to explore is by rental car from Kuantan. Driving is not for the faint of heart, however. Though Highway 3 is paved and well signed, you drive on the left, and locals passing on hills and curves more than once rendered us white-knuckled on the side of the road.

Kuantan to Cherating It's 4 or 5 hours by bus or car to Kuantan from Kuala Lumpur, up to 7 hours from Singapore. Flying from either city saves time; rent a car (reserve ahead) at Kuantan airport.

The best hotel near Kuantan is the Hyatt (about $60) on the beach at Telok Chempedak, just northeast of town. For rustic lodging on or near the beach, head for rural Cherating-where you'll also find the Club Med-42 kilometers north of town (look for roadside markers every kilometer).

Just past the 7-kilometer marker on Highway 3 north of Kuantan, turn right at the Pantai Beserah sign to the fishing village of Besezrah. Fish dry on racks near the beach; around 2 or 3 Pm,, boats return, and water buffalo pull carts down to the beach to carry away the catch. Cherating is the center of a government effort to preserve crafts ranging from mat weaving to batik. Several shops, including an official tourist center, sell crafts by local artisans.

Take time to look around; you'll find villagers weaving baskets, making and flying kites, spinning giant tops, and maybe using monkeys to scramble up high palms to fetch coconuts.

Driving down to the beautiful crescent of beach, you'll pass a few clusters of bungalows. Most have open windows for ventilation and mosquito netting over the beds. The most basic offer tiny rooms with a bed and shared bath for $10 per night, but we saw several fully furnished ones with ceiling fans and private baths for less than $30 per night. There are few local restaurants; most guests arrange for simple meals in a communal dining room. The tourism office in Kuantan can help you find lodgings.

Cherating to Rantau Abang North of Cherating, the highway crosses estuaries and passes through stilt villages where goats, cows, and schoolchildren unpredictably claim a share of road.

This is a stretch for exploring. Deserted beaches offer endless picnic sites (though ocean currents may be treacherous). Malaysia is a Muslim country, and in even the smallest village a loudspeaker in the mosque issues calls to prayer five times a day. Most women and girls cover their heads; many veiled their faces when we passed. People are invariably friendly, but shy; few want their pictures taken.

Crossing the river Sungai Paka, look for colorful fishing boats beached near a village. If you want to spend a comfortable night on a deserted beach in a hotel with Western amenities, Malay architecture, and a good restaurant-turn east down a narrow road to the Tanjong Jara Hotel (about $60), just south of the 68-kilometer marker.

At Rantau Abang, barely 8 kilometers north of the hotel, is the Turtle Information Center. This is one of the spots where giant leatherback turtles lay their eggs, in the dead of night from late June through August. (Swimmers beware: this is also the season for stinging jellyfish.) Stay in any of the beachfront huts and proprietors will wake you if turtles come ashore. Or pay about $2 to wait on the beach.

Marang, Kapas, Kuala Terengganu

The sizable community of Marang includes a picturesque fishing village, decent beaches, and several guest houses. It is also where you get the boat to outstanding snorkeling at Pulau Kapas.

From the highway bridge crossing the river, look toward the ocean for a small dock; this is where licensed fishing boats leave for the 30- to 45-minute ride to the island. Round trip costs $15 per person; bring your own food, water, and gear. There are no schedules; boats leave when they get 4 to 12 passengers.

Your best bet, if you have enough people, is to charter a boat. A half-day trip costs $60 to $80, and the boat stays with you as a snorkeling base. At a small bungalow on the island, rooms are $20 to $30 per night.

At Kuala Terengganu, you can drop your car (about $50, by advance arrangement) and catch a plane to Kuala Lumpur; or drive another 4 hours north to the airport at Kota Bharu.

If it's Friday in Cherating ...

In Kuantan, banks, offices, and some shops are closed Saturday afternoons and Sundays; north of Cherating, they're closed Thursday afternoons and Fridays. Bottled water is available in most stores and is highly recommended, as is mosquito repellent. Check with your doctor about the advisability of using anti-malaria drugs.

For information before you go One good guide for the budget traveler that goes into detail on bungalows and restaurants is Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei, by Geoff Crowther and Tony Wheeler (Lonely Planet Publications, Berkeley, 1988; $9.95). Insight Guides Malaysia (Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1988; $19.95) offers more detail on history and culture.

For maps, addresses of local tourist offices, and reservations help, write or call the Malaysia Tourist Information Center, 818 W. Seventh St., Los Angeles 90017; (213) 689-9702.
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Date:Oct 1, 1990
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